a sermon on Matthew 22:34-40 and 1 Cor 12:12-26
Preached at Corvallis Congregational United Church of Christ
Central Pacific Conference Fall Gathering
On the occasion of the
Installation of the Rev. Dr. Walter John Boris as Conference Minister
Walter John, you are a collector of children’s books, so I had this great plan to write a sermon in the style of Dr. Seuss:
Jesus says to love each other
Love your sister, Love your brother.
Love with all your heart and soul
Love others, as you love the hole-
y. Later, old Paul, in a letter
Tried to do the Lord one better
“Recognize we’re all one thing,
That’s the song we should be sing-
ing. Top and middle and even bottom,
Good parts, bad parts, all have got ‘em….”
See, it was such a good idea but it kind of breaks down there in the second verse, so I gave up rhyming, and instead got to wondering. And what I wondered was this: do you think Jesus would be part of the emergent church movement?
You’ve probably heard of the emergent church – maybe you even consider yourself emergent. The word “emergent” means a lot of things to a lot of people, but for our purposes tonight let’s say this about the emerging church movement: That it is a gathering of people, mostly young, often disaffected evangelicals who use “provocative language of reform,” in regards to institutional churches, who often live their faith radically, even to the point of cohabitating in faith communities or cells. Many emerging churches meet in homes or coffee shops, outside the walls of those institutional churches that they feel have let them down or have diluted Jesus’ message. Those of you who were around in the 70’s are now saying, “hey, aren’t those the Jesus freaks?” Yes, every generation has them, and this generation they are called emergent.
So when you read today’s scripture from Matthew or hear it read, you kind of have to wonder, don’t you, would Jesus have been one of those guys? (And interestingly, many leaders of the modern emergent movement are guys).
First of all, where is Jesus? He’s in Jerusalem. This text takes place after what we know as the celebratory Palm Sunday entrance into the city. So, Jesus is in the place that is the center of Jewish faith, on the biggest Jewish holiday of the year - Passover. And he’s not just in the city. He’s in the temple (which he entered back in 21:12 to clear out the money changers). What’s he doing in the temple? He’s engaged in debate and conversation about scripture – he’s quoting both Duet (you shall love the lord your god with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind) and Leviticus (and your neighbor as yourself) here. Quoting scripture and debating about its meaning was a common and expected practice of the time.
All this “doing what’s expected” makes me think that maybe Jesus wouldn’t be emergent after all. He didn’t flee the church. He’s right there. He’s that pest in your board meeting who keeps asking if what you are doing is really scriptural. He’s that familiar child of the church, who has suddenly grown up and now wants to know why you aren’t living up to your ideals. He’s that guy in the back who keeps interrupting your sermon and demanding you get to the point. He’s that guy.
Look, Jesus was, as the bumper sticker says, a community organizer not a church planter. But religious structures and institutions MEANT something to him, or he wouldn’t have bothered with the temple. He’s more Martin Luther nailing his theses to the door of the church (that was still -- in spite of it all -- dear to him), than an earnest kid with a guitar and bible outside Starbucks.
What did he say about how to be the church, then, this child of the temple? Jesus’ term paper on “Essentials of Ecclesiology” somehow didn’t make it into the canon, but we know that God’s-people-gathered was critically important to Jesus, which is why we who claim him right in our name and follow him, keep trying to figure it out. It matters to us to too, and matters to the dear people who come to our places of worship each Sunday. Evidently, THEY aren’t paying attention to so-called prophets who say the days of the mainline church is over. So how do we do it? How do we be the church?
We look to Paul, who even only a generation after Jesus was trying it figure it out, too. This passage from Corinthians, a favorite of Walter John, describes the church as a body. Sarah Dylan, in her on-line lectionary blog, says that his metaphor of the body, “previously used to tell striking dock workers to accept their poor treatment and get back to work (the argument went along the lines of "a body has many parts that must all work together for the health of the body, on which the health of the members depend; y'all are the feet, so you belong in the muck, while others belong in more honored places higher up")
The health and honor of all of us hinges upon honoring and caring for the weakest. It’s right up there with loving God with everything we’ve got and others as much as ourselves. Can we really DO that? Can we even imagine it?
It might take the imagination of an artist, or a poet to guide the way. I was driving to a meeting the other day, half paying attention to OPB, when I heard an interview with Lake Oswego poet Kim Stafford. Did you hear it? You may know more about Stafford than I do. All I know of him, I learned from a little interview, which he ended by reading this poem, or “exercise in intellectual love” as he called it. It’s called “Mediation.”
At the dinner table
before the thrown plate but after the bitter clang
in the one beat of silence and glare
Before the parents declare war
their child, who had been invisible, speaks:
“Would you like me to help solve the conflict?”
They cant look at each other,
such a glance would sear the soul
They can’t say no. They can’t say yes.
So the child speaks
“Three rules, then:
One. You have to let the other finish.
Two. You have to tell the truth.
Three. You have to want to solve the conflict.
If you say yes to all three,
we will solve the conflict
I love you.
What do you say? (Found and transcribed at www.opb.org)
Maybe what Walter John believed about us when he wrote his doctoral thesis on creating congregational art, is true. Maybe we all really ARE artists, maybe we all really ARE poets. Maybe, then, we DO have enough poetic, artistic imagination to not only imagine a church, a structure, an institution built on love, honor, care, and making the invisible visible, but actually to LIVE such a church.
It is in the spirit of the lived poetic imagination that has been the spark and soul of the United Church of Christ from our various beginnings, that we install Walter John tonight to be our new conference minister. Walter John loves the church. He knows that God is still speaking in and to and with it. Walter John, who arranged that one of his first acts among us would be to go on a mission trip to areas still devastated by Hurricane Katrina, knows that God is still speaking in imaginative acts of social justice. He and his congregation in Kirkland WA invited a community of homeless people to live with them for a time, camping in the church parking lot until they could find another place. That poetic, artistic imagination isn’t all serious – it has its playful side. I can tell you from experience that WJ can play ping pong with a small child without stopping for 37 hours. He believes about each of us that we are artists – not just individually but (as the scripture he loves so much that we read tonight reminds us) collectively.
Walter John knows and lives this : Love God. Love each other. The one who had been invisible, speaks. The health and honor of all us hinges on our honor and care for the weakest. And he knows that our honor and care of the weakest is not something we do for the weakest, for the invisible. We do it because it lifts us all.
We do it because the church in general and our United Church of Christ in particular has something important to say on the eve of an election and in the midst of an economic crisis which the culture clamors will divide us. What do we, a church with a poetic soul and an artistic imagination, have to contribute in a time like this?
Sisters and brothers, what we’ve got is not more or less important now than its ever been. It’s as important as it was 20 years ago, and 200 years ago and 2000 years ago. What we’ve got is the capacity to bring people together across racial and gender and economic and generational lines. What we’ve got is worship to remind us both that we are each individually important and that we are part of something much bigger. What we’ve got is safe and warm buildings. What we’ve got is people who are just yearning for ways to serve God and neighbor if only they knew how. What we’ve got is prayer. We’ve got all that. And, we’ve got a story. We’ve got words so old that they were old even in Jesus time, when he said them again. Words so new that each new generation discovers them again as if for the first time and wonders how to live them. Love God, love each other. (this paragraph inspired by Rev. Kathryn Zucker Johnson, Harrisburg PA)
Walter John, people of the CPC, there will certainly be days ahead of us when, like in Kim Stafford’s poem, we are ready to throw plates at each other. Listen, though, Jesus is right here – at the table with us, just as the crockery is about to go flying over our heads. Listen, can you hear? He’s saying: I love you. What do you say?
Maybe making church is just not all that complicated after all. Could be that the emergent church movement (or the Jesus freak movement, or whatever it is called in each generation) is a false title because really, aren’t we all emerging – in all our churches? Aren’t we all always becoming something new all the time? Aren’t we always crawling out of our cocoons, sticky and a little fragile but determined, beautiful, ready to take flight? Maybe being church really is just as simple as these old, old words, these words worth repeating, these words spoken in the temple or in the coffee shop or in your church this very Sunday. This is the body. You are the body. Love God, with everything you’ve got. And, love each other. Love each other